Kira’s #CBR5 “Review” #39: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

wolfNo matter how many accolades Wolf Hall has gotten, it’s hard not to tuck into a “Thomas Cromwell trilogy” without feeling a bit like the 73-year-old version of yourself (just with fewer afghans; I plan to have a lot of afghans). And for the first hundred pages of Hilary Mantel’s inaugural Cromwell novel, I wondered whether I had perhaps jumped the gun on King Henry-themed historical fiction: For all its wit and depth and (what I assume is) contextual accuracy, Wolf Hall was failing to take me out of myself. It seemed a book for a quiet afternoon at the library, or a peaceful morning in bed, not the kind of novel that might make itself heard over the cacophony of a subway commute.

Wolf Hall is, put simply, a fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell, from his time as right-hand man to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (lots of Thomases in this book) through his ascension in the court of King Henry VIII. The novel won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and has already been picked up for the stage and television. Its sequel, Bring up the Bodiesalso won the Man Booker Prize, reminding us that British lady authors can write bestselling literary series that don’t include wizarding schools or vomit-flavored jelly beans.


Kira’s #CBR5 “Review” #38: Broken Harbor, by Tana French

brokenharborSix years ago, Tana French had zero books. Today she has four (five if you count The Secret Place, set for publication in 2014) and they are for the most part pretty awesome. Set in Dublin and surrounding neighborhoods, each of French’s novels tracks a high-profile homicide and its investigation by a member/members of the Dublin Murder Squad, a parade of gruff yet nuanced detectives with personal backgrounds that range from the tragic to the merely unfortunate (we’re talking everything from missing/murdered childhood best friends to suicidal moms).

In Broken Harbor, which I feel compelled to admit I finished a few weeks ago at the beach (I’m running behind, okay? DON’T JUDGE ME) the case in question is a triple homicide: Patrick Spain and his two young children are found murdered in their home in a once up-and-coming (or once aspiring-to-up-and-come) beachfront-ish housing development. Wife/mom Jenny Spain barely survives the attack, and is laid up at the emergency room recovering as Detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy begins investigating the case. Of course, per the aforementioned personal background requisite, Scorcher has his own history with Broken Harbor (the presciently sad name of the housing development) and so must contend with his own emotional roller coaster as he becomes increasingly obsessed with the murder.


Kira’s #CBR5 “Review” #37: Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

swampThere’s a strong chance that any attempt on my family’s part to co-operate some sort of theme park would end in both tears and shouted insults regarding business acumen (also probably bankruptcy). You see, we Bindrims are not meant to work in concert, and it’s really in everyone’s best interest that we reserve our interactions for lesser affairs, like the Thanksgiving table. Still, whenever I stumble onto a movie or book predicated on the notion of a family-run entertainment venue (in a fit of boredom, I even watched Dolphin Tale a few weeks ago) I can’t help but envy the unique camaraderie that comes with providing a bit of wacky family-run family fun.

Which brings me to Swamplandia! A gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades, Swamplandia! is owned and operated by the Bigtree family, whose implied tribal background is just that: implied. In reality, the Bigtrees are made up of dad (the Chief), mother Hilola, daughter Osceola, son Kiwi and daughter Ava, the last of whom is our narrator. The family-run operation — accessible only by boat — is chugging along smoothly until the relatively sudden death of Hilola, who in addition to being the maternal unit is also Swamplandia’s star attraction: Every night she dives headfirst into a pit of alligators in what’s referred to as “Swimming with the Seths” (all of the alligators are named, and referred to as, Seth). After Hilola’s death, her surviving family members are distraught, and Swamplandia struggles to retain its fan base absent a main attraction.


Then things start to get weird. Strapped for cash and withdrawn from his family, Chief Bigtree departs for the mainland to try and raise funds for his Swamplandia recovery plan. Left to their own devices, the kids splinter: Kiwi defects to World of Darkness, a rival theme park; Osceola begins communicating with (and dating) long-dead spirits in the Florida swamps; and Ava, stressing the gradual disintegration of her family, departs on her own mission to try and bring them back together.



Kira’s #CBR5 “Review” #36: The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As told to Alex Haley

3 X slideshowI decided to dive into The Autobiography of Malcolm X after last week’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, during which people like Barack Obama and Oprah touted how far our nation has come on civil rights in the last five decades. Said Obama in his speech: “To dismiss the magnitude of progress, or to suggest, as some have, that little has changed, dishonors the courage and sacrifice of those who paid the price to march.”

A week later, having delved into the life and thoughts of one of the country’s most recognized—and contentious—civil rights leaders, I find myself wondering whether Malcolm X would entirely agree

TAMX begins in Lansing, Michigan, where Malcolm Little is a generally good kid and upstanding student until the day he visits a relative in Boston and his mind is blown by all the hustle and bustle and black people. That trip—coupled with a teacher’s admonition that Little could never be a lawyer—inspires in him a certain frustration, and Malcolm soon drops out of school and moves to Boston, and later Harlem, where he becomes a small-time hustler: selling weed, shepherding men to prostitutes, robbing apartments, etc.


Kira’s #CBR5 “Review” #35: Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

orangeAlong with hoards of other Netflix subscribers, I settled into my couch earlier this month to power through Orange is the Black, the much-hyped new series from the same distribution network (channel? online service? whatevs) whose House of Cards occupied the better part of my February.

For the uninitiated, OITNB is the story of Piper Chapman, a yuppie blonde whose past indiscretions–a brief stint smuggling drug money–come back to haunt her when her erstwhile lady lover/cartel supervisor (?) sells her out to the cops almost a decade later. In the show, Piper is sent to a minimum-security women’s correctional facility to serve her 12ish months, alongside (because of course) said lady lover, who’s also locked up for her cartel involvement. The show, which touches on themes like class, gender, sexuality and race (among others) is a touching, insightful and extremely witty look at the realities of prison in America, the country that currently has as many people locked up as there are in all of Houston.

Netflix’s OITNB is based on a memoir of the same name, written by Piper Kerman, who was incarcerated for 13 months at the women’s federal correctional institute in Danbury, Connecticut (plus a few weeks at other facilities).

As a book, OITNB is pretty good, though disadvantaged when stacked up against its TV iteration. For one, much of the show’s strength comes in its ability to (ahem) show, instead of tell. Basic prison info can be conveyed visually, and the more nuanced commentary is presented as dialogue between inmates, or between an inmate and a correctional officer or counselor. By contrast, as the narrator of her own story, Piper Kerman spends far more time explaining things that the show highlights effortlessly: antiquated (yet generally peaceful) racial divisions between inmates, decrepit facilities, lacking rehabilitation programs, dubiously competent COs. Similarly, Piper’s sometimes tone-deaf naïveté as a prisoner—a point of annoyance only in the first few episodes of the Netflix season—feels much more present throughout the book, where we’re limited to her perspective.


Kira’s #CBR5 “Review” #34: Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion

slouchAuthor’s note: I read my first Joan Didion book this week. (I know, I know. I knooooow.) Naturally, as is to be expected when people say things like “What do you mean you haven’t read Joan Didion?” it was everything. Sheer elegant perfection that I have absolutely no idea how to review. How does the apprentice critique the master? The parishioner judge the pope? So instead I just wrote this.


The center was not holding. It was a time of celebrities and sensationalism, 24/7 news coverage, mob-like vitriol and profound cultural change. Debt begat debt begat debt. Politics devolved to the starkest red and the muddiest blue; together they became a bruise. I decided to go to Williamsburg. Brooklyn was where they congregated, the mustachioed intellectuals of the next generation, the Great Young Hope, self-named guardians of a nostalgic ethos that valued art and fashion, but also social justice and making things by hand. Williamsburg was a leading franchise of the post-2000 hipster revolution, the era of artisanal bath products and ironic suspenders. Continue reading

Kira’s #CBR5 Review #33: The Prayer Box, by Lisa Wingate

prayerDivorced with two kids, on the run from a vicious ex and strapped for cash and credibility, Tandi jo Reese finds herself two months behind on the rent in the cottage-slash-bungalow she’s renting from an elderly woman (whose lush manse is just across the yard) on Hatteras Island in (on?) the Outer Banks. As is wont to happen when one is dealing with wealthy reclusive old ladies in spacious mansions, Tandi one afternoon finds that Iola Anne Poole has died in her sleep (and left her house to the church). Worried about her living status and desperate for income, Tandi accepts an offer to clean out the old mansion, which is filled with the detritus of numerous years.

But amid the trash, there is treasure: Tandi comes across dozens of decorated prayer boxes that contain hundreds of Iola’s reflections — notes, prayers, secret letters, spanning decades of life. Through the prayer boxes, Tandi learns so much more about Iola and—because obvi—herself.

The Prayer Box is every bit as touching as you would expect from a tale as old as time—flawed woman with relationship issues finds solace and insight through the life of an older, also flawed, but well-loved and well-lived older woman, who is, incidentally, deceased. And with the glaring exception of Fried Green Tomatoes (because duh), It would be fair to say that I usually balk at these kinds of novels, which always seem to include tear-jerky life lessons and covers depicting women’s legs in various states of self-discovery (see:).